Chicago Theatre Review
A Child’s Guide to Civil Rights
Jabari Dreams of Freedom – Chicago Children’s Theatre
Listening to the evening news can be more frightening for a child than reading any of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps novels. Jabari is a young boy who lives on Chicago’s violent South side. The world around him is really scary, filled with seemingly unstoppable death and destruction. But Jabari wonders why he needs to study Civil Rights in his class and what all of that has to do with him? It isn’t real and it bears no relevance to Chicago today. It’s names, dates and facts are from another era and don’t mean anything to a preteen boy.
Then, suddenly, Jabari’s best friend and classmate becomes the next unexpected victim of violence, the kind the youngster had only heard about on the news. He tries to express his frustration and hurt through his video games, music and art. However, when a nightmare transports Jabari back into the past, enabling him to meet and interact with some of the famous, unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, the youngster’s paintings come to life. It’s then that he finds the true importance of learning about the past.
Award-winning playwright and actress Nambi E. Kelley has created an exciting new play for young audiences. It tells about a likable young man who, frightened by his own world, yet piqued by what he’s learned in school, time travels through dreams to meet Ruby Bridges, Claudette Colvin, a young Barack Obama and others. Through these encounters, Jabari experiences firsthand the lives and times of several young pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement.
Directed with spirit, humor and sensitivity by Chicago artist and educator, Lili-Anne Brown, this little play entertainingly teaches audiences more about this chapter of African American history than an entire semester of high school social studies. Assisted by Jaret Landon, as musical director and composer of original songs and music, this lively 60-minute production is both educational and entertaining. The cast includes talented ensemble members Patrick Agada, Emily Glick, Matt Keffer, Lesie Ann Sheppard, as well as the gregarious Gavin Lawrence who’s both strong and very funny as Jabari’s Dad and Barack Obama.
But the real star of this musical play is young Phillip Cusic as Jabari (he alternates this demanding role with Cameron Goode). The show belongs to this character and it’s through his preadolescent eyes that we see, hear and feel the importance of the Civil Rights Movement and come to know those who became its heroes. Young Mr. Cusic seems totally comfortable telling Jabari’s story and is very much at home running this show. He’s a young actor to watch for in the future.
This may be a play aimed at young audiences but adults accompanying their children will be equally entertained and enchanted by the characters and their story. Strong production values, which include a flexible set by William Boles, wonderful projections by Michael Stanfill and colorful period costumes by Mieka van der Ploeg, takes this show to a level far beyond expectations. This children’s guide to Civil Rights also includes a well-designed playbill for each theatergoer that doubles as an activity book. It’s filled with fun activities, facts for discussion and features a fine bibliography of suggested books to extend the theatrical experience even further. Chicago Children’s Theatre productions simply get better and better with each offering and this play is one that simply can’t be beat.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 5-May 1 by Chicago Children’s Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 872-222-9555 or by going to www.chicagochildrenstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com